— Where have you gone, Mike Adamle?
NBC's modernized version of “American Gladiators” served up a special two-hour premiere Sunday night that delivered the goods with spectacular action, water and fire, but it came with way too much talking.
The show settles into its regular timeslot at 8 ET Monday night.
The original “American Gladiators” series, which ran for seven seasons in syndication from 1989 to 1996 and now appears on ESPN Classic, developed a tremendous cult following and secured a spot in pop culture nostalgia.
Now in a prime-time slot, the new version had to offer more intense action, more intrigue and more fireworks. In terms of sheer action, it didn't disappoint. But hosts Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali ought to ring up Adamle, host throughout the show's original run, for some pointers. Adamle worked alongside various color commentators over the years, including Joe Theismann, Larry Csonka and Todd Christensen, and brought just enough gravitas to the events to match the “Wide World of Sports”-like production. It's clear that the producers are aiming for more spectacle than sport with the new version, which is fine, but Hogan and Ali need fine-tuning in the art of interviewing and moving the action along.
But it wasn't just Hogan and Ali who talked too much. The contenders talked too much, with bits of forced smack talk that included one of them saying, “Just like I did in med school, I'm going all the way to the top!” Oooh.
Even the referee talked too much, oddly asking the contestants and the Gladiators if they were ready at the start of each event, which made for an awkward pause as he awaited their response, “Yeah!” every time.
Off to an awkward start
The premiere got off to an awkward start as Jessie Foster, one of the female contestants, fell awkwardly on her knee less than a minute into the first event, “Power Ball,” and had to drop out of the competition. Minutes later, “Militia,” one of the new Gladiators, succumbed to injury during the “Hang Tough” event.
But those mild distractions didn't take away from an otherwise thrilling television event. Because, really, what better entertainment is there than watching a couple of people on small platforms beat the hell out of each other for 30 seconds with oversized Q-Tips?
The competition features 24 contenders (12 men and 12 women) in a tournament where the grand prize for the last man and woman standing is $100,000, a car and the choice to become a Gladiator. In each episode, the contenders battle the Gladiators in four events to accumulate points. The fifth event, “Eliminator,” is a timed obstacle course and the absolute highlight of the evening that determines the episode's winner.
The new “Eliminator” course makes every incarnation of the original version — which was usually completed in less than a minute — look like a Sunday jog in the park. The event, which no longer includes any Gladiator involvement, runs the contenders through a course that includes an eight-foot wall climb, a 20-foot swim (part of which is under a fiery surface) and a 30-foot climb up a wet cargo net that proves to be a physically draining, two- to four-minute endeavor.
Many of the classic “Gladiators” events, including “The Wall,” “Assault” and “Joust,” were brought back with a slightly new treatment. The updates often included dumping the contenders into a pool of water upon losing, when they used to land in a stack of foam gym mats. The contenders are further humiliated as the crowd is led into a chorus of “Another One Bites the Dust” or “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” as they splash in defeat.
Get ready for ‘Earthquake’
Two promising new events were showcased Sunday night: “Earthquake” and “Hit & Run.”
In “Earthquake,” which looks like a take on the “Conquer” portion of the classic “Breakthrough & Conquer,” contestants wrestle a Gladiator while trying to push him off a 12-foot platform. But while “Conquer” was done on a simple wrestling mat, “Earthquake” takes place on a platform that is suspended over the arena floor, so there’s a long way to fall.
In “Hit & Run,” contestants try to cross a 50-foot suspension bridge as many times as possible while four Gladiators swing 100-pound “demolition balls” at them in an effort to knock them off the bridge and into the drink.
It'll take more than one episode to determine whether there's a “Nitro,” “Gemini” or “Zap” in the bunch, but the new batch of Gladiators is impressive in physique and attitude. Early standouts on the men's side are “Wolf,” who howls (seriously) when he's introduced and brings a ratty hairdo to the mix, and muscle-bound pretty boy “Titan,” also known as Mike O'Hearn, a four-time Mr. Universe. The women are led by “Crush,” a martial arts champion, and “Hellga,” an athletic brute who didn't get enough camera time in the first installment.
Even though the deal to bring “American Gladiators” back was done before TV writers went on strike, the timing couldn't be better for a throwback with a modern twist. While it might not stand up to competition from the best scripted dramas TV normally has to offer, it's a fine filler on the schedule while TV writers and producers sort out a contract and should otherwise make for some fine summertime fare.
Then again, if millions of people are still watching Howie Mandel ask models to open briefcases every week, there could be a need for some real action in prime time.
Victor Balta lives in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.